Breathing for Singing Myths Can Slow Your Development
It's not always fun to be the voice of reason in this field.
I hear from coaches that they refrain from teaching breathing to new students because they are afraid of losing the student. I'm told that students want to jump right into singing songs and to have the coach help them with the songs. I find this sad.
What makes me even sadder is that breathing is not taught correctly much of the time, even when it is taught.
Much of the confusion stems from a couple of things:
- Misunderstanding of how the diaphragm works (students and coaches).
- Giving instructions to students to use the diaphragm in the exact opposite way that it works.
- Leaving out some of the very most important breathing techniques and instruction.
In this video and article I'll run through seven myths that must be dispelled if you don't want them to slow your rate of improvement.
When your knowledge of breathing for singing is correct, you can sing better faster. It's that simple.
MYTH #7: You Have No Voluntary Control Over Your Diaphragm
Yes, you do. You have both voluntary and involuntary control over your diaphragm.
I can produce a long list of quotes from medical doctors and researchers who make this claim. I only find that it's voice coaches who say otherwise.
However, here's a quote from William Vennard, one of the most famous voice coaches in history:
“All the muscles involved in respiration can be consciously controlled.”
- William Vennard, Singing: The Mechanism and the Technic, p.16, paragraph 75.
MYTH #6: You Can Push Down On or Push Down with the Diaphragm
You can neither push down on nor push down with the diaphragm. The diaphragm is a pulling muscle.
The diaphragm has two parts: a muscle and a tendon (put simply). It gets its name from the tendon portion, which is the odd-shaped, somewhat horizontal membrane that creates the air-tight seal between your ribcage and guts.
The muscle attaches to the inside of your spine at the lumbar, the curve of your lower back.
It reaches up and attaches to the underside of the tendon. It can only pull down. It pulls the tendon down to draw in air.
That's it. No pushing at all.
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MYTH #5: Sing from the Diaphragm!
You can't sing from your diaphragm. This one is silly and yet you hear it all the time.
I get that it might be helpful at times, but more than likely it causes confusion.
I prefer not to use a piece of the physiology for an image or metaphor when it's function doesn't at all approximate what is intended by the image.
MYTH #4: A Deep Breath is NOT Necessary for Contemporary Singing
A deep breath is necessary for strong high notes. Genre is irrelevant.
In fact, all singing sounds better when well supported by steady air pressure. Steady air pressure is best manage by starting each phrase with the lungs nearly full.
The trick is learning to manage the air.
Here's a great quote from a former master singer and teacher:
“The lungs, in the first place, should be thoroughly filled. A tone begun with only half filled lungs loses half its authority and is very apt to be false in pitch.”
- Luisa Tetrazinni, Caruso and Tetrazzini on The Art of Singing
MYTHS #3 and #2: Always Hold Back the Air! Never Hold Back the Air!
This is a complex subject. I'll keep it simple here.
There are up to seven ways to halt forward motion of the breath. All are undesirable in singing except for one.
The only correct way to "hold back" or "reduce" airflow is to use the diaphragm, in a technique known as diaphragmatic co-contraction.
In the Italian Bel Canto tradition, this is known as La Lotta Vocale. It is part of Appoggio.
And it doesn't matter what genre you sing. Learning how to reduce airflow, especially at the onset of a phrase, requires diaphragmatic co-contraction.
It can take a while to develop this technique. Some do it naturally. Some don't.
MYTH #1: MORE DIAPHRAGM! (to increase air pressure)
Much like Myth #6, coaches try to encourage students to increase air pressure by saying, "more diaphragm!" Some will say, "push down on the diaphragm!".
Simply put, the diaphragm can only reduce airflow, reduce air pressure. Confusing students by claiming the opposite helps no one.
Why not just say, "more air pressure"? How about, "more abs!". The abdominal muscles are the only muscles that can actually increase air pressure. You have exhale muscles in your ribcage, but they aren't used and have little effect when they are used.
What to do Next
If you're looking to get better at singing faster, check out all of the new articles this week on breathing for singing.
So many pop coaches are teaching that breathing can be ignored. Or, they teach it quickly and often incorrectly.
Know that there is a 400 year history of singing technique from the best coaches and teachers that puts breathing for singing at the forefront of learning.
Please share your thoughts in the comments below. Leave any questions you have, too.
Be Well and Train Hard!